Epimenides’ Paradox

Cretans, as a people, are kind and proud and fierce. I said so to a friend after one of many sojourns to the Isle of Myth.

“All Cretans are liars,” he said.

I said, “That’s a lie.”

“Of course it is; a Cretan said it!”


Epimenides is a legendary figure. He lived in the seventh and sixth centuries BC. He was a poet, philosopher, ascetic, wise man, prophet, and—according to his own countrymen—a god.

Diodorus Siculus, first-century-BC historian of ancient Greece, called Epimenides a theologian and a trustworthy authority on Cretan affairs (Epimenides Fragment 20). In the second century AD, Christian philosopher Clement of Alexandria wrote in The Stromata that Greeks of his time counted Epimenides among the seven (or nine) men most admired for their wisdom.

In the third century, Diogenes Laërtius treats Epimenides in The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. Most of what we know about his life comes from this biography.

Of his youth, Diogenes tells the following legend, which I summarize: While tending sheep one summer day, Epimenides sought shelter from the sun in a cave, where he took a nap. He woke up fifty-seven years later, untouched by age. When folk heard the story, they took him for a favorite of the gods.

His parentage is disputed among ancient historians, but all agree that Epimenides was born and lived in Knossos. Unlike Cretans of the day, he let his hair grow long, and tattoos covered his skin. He ate rarely, in small quantities, and only food provided by nymphs. He purified cities, built shrines and temples, and was given to prophesying.

Though age caught up with him fifty-seven days after his waking, Epimenides lived on to write poetry as well as prose, which Diogenes describes:

He wrote a poem of five thousand verses on the Generation and Theogony of the Curetes and Corybantes, and another poem of six thousand five hundred verses on the building of the Argo and the expedition of Jason to Colchis.

He also wrote a treatise in prose on the Sacrifices in Crete, and the Cretan Constitution, and on Minos and Rhadamanthus, occupying four thousand lines. (Lives, 51)

None of these writings, however, survived the intervening millennia. We know of Epimenides through biographers and fragments of his work in later texts.

One such text is St. Paul’s Letter to Titus, then bishop of Crete. The epistler calls on Titus to reprimand those who rebel against the faith.

They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith. (Titus 1:11-13)

Clement, again in The Stromata, identifies Epimenides as the Cretan prophet of Paul’s letter:

… Epimenides the Cretan, whom Paul knew as a Greek prophet, whom he mentions in the Epistle to Titus, where he speaks thus: “One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, The Cretans are always liars…” (Stromata 1.14)

Some 300 years after Epimenides, Greek poet Callimachus writes: “The Cretans ever feign.” In his Hymn to Zeus, it is the tomb of the father of gods and men—which the Cretans say is in their country, therefore blasphemy—that prompts the denigrating remark.

The Cretans ever feign - Callimachus“The Cretans ever feign” from “The Hymn to Jupiter” translated by William Dodd in The Hymns of Callimachus (London: T. Waller and J. Ward, 1755).

Callimachus doesn’t mention Epimenides. We will see below, however, that the scenario is borrowed from the Knossian prophet—or at least the two writers share a common source.

Though Epimenides’ work is lost, Paul’s Letter to Titus was collected into a large volume, which is both respected for its veracity and widely circulated. And so, what has become known as Epimenides’ Paradox[1] comes down to our times.

In the early twentieth century, biblical scholar and manuscript hunter J. Rendel Harris found evidence linking Paul’s quote with the scenario given by Callimachus. The discovery was made in successive steps. Here, I make short the process, which Harris documents in three articles over five years in a theological journal.[2]

Ishodad of Merv was a theologian of the Nestorian Church, a branch of Eastern Christianity. In the ninth century, he wrote extensive commentary on the Old and New Testaments.

Among Ishodad’s commentary, Harris discovered a familiar refrain concerning Cretans: “Liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.” It is one of a four-line verse describing the same scenario given by Callimachus. And the verse is part of an excerpt summarizing the work of a fourth-century theologian, Theodore of Antioch, called “The Interpreter,” because Theodore’s works were considered heresy.

Furthermore, the excerpt gives the verse as dialog, part of a speech by Minos, mythical King of Crete.

In one article (The Expositor, Oct. 1912), Harris reproduces the text, of which the following is part:

The Cretans said about Zeus, as if it were true, that he was a prince, and was lacerated by a wild boar, and was buried; and behold! his grave is known amongst us; so Minos, the son of Zeus, made a panegyric [speech of elaborate praise] over his father, and in it he said:

The Cretans have fashioned a tomb for thee, O Holy and High!
Liars, evil beasts, idle bellies;
For thou diest not; for ever thou livest and standest;
For in thee we live and move and have our being.

So the blessed Paul took this sentence from Minos.

The final phrase, according to Harris, intends a work by Epimenides, possibly a short title for “Minos and Rhadamanthus,” mentioned by Diogenes.[3]

The tomb of Jove - Callimachus“They have built the tomb of Jove…, who bears no dying frame” from Dodd, who translates the Greek Zeus to the Roman Jupiter and Jove.

If we accept the character’s existence at all, Minos was a first generation Cretan. So, while we now better understand the context, the paradox remains.

Diogenes writes that Epimenides died at 299 years of age—“as the Cretans report.”

 


[1] The paradox is sometimes called the “Fallacy of Mentiens,” especially in turn-of-the-twentieth-century textbooks on Logic, e.g. Fowler (1883), Gibson (1914), Bartlett (1922). Diogenes, in another entry of Lives, gives a long list of works by Chrysippus, a philosopher who wrote 200 years after Epimenides. A few of Chrysippus’s titles, grouped together, refer to “the Mentiens Argument.” Among this group, another title is “Reply to those who hold that Propositions may be at once False and True.” Perhaps Mentiens was an earlier writer otherwise fallen into history’s oubliette.

[2] I refer interested readers to Harris’s articles published in The Expositor available on the Biblical Studies website: “The Cretans Always Liars” (Oct. 1906):305-317, “A Further Note on the Cretans” (Apr. 1907):332-337, and “St. Paul and Epimenides” (Oct. 1912):348-353. For more about Harris’s quest for ancient texts, consider his biography by Alessandro Falcetta, The Daily Discoveries of a Bible Scholar and Manuscript Hunter: A Biography of James Rendel Harris (1852–1941).

[3] Ishodad’s excerpt comes from his commentary on Acts of the Apostles. In the text above, “this sentence” refers to the last line of Minos’s dialog, which St. Paul quotes in his speech to the Areopagus (Acts 17:28). For more about references to Epimenides in Titus and Acts, see Paul Davidson’s informative article, “Lying Cretans and Unknown Gods: Allusions to Epimenides in the New Testament,” on Is That in the Bible?

 


Twenty-first-century author Stephen Wendell is writing a novel set in mythological Crete.

 


Another Stretch of Road

Slanting afternoon light showed me a field of rocks. Erosion on the crystalline limestone that covers the peninsula makes formations of standing stones, legions of trolls caught in sunshine marching across the landscape. But these rocks looked different. Curious, I stopped the car to have a look.

Crystalline limestone, yes, but these were hewn into rough rectangular shapes, laid in a mosaic pattern, and bordered by straight rows of same. Nineteen hundred years of wind and winter rain set them in jagged profile. Two paces (about three meters) from edge row to edge row confirms another stretch, this one 150 meters long, of the Roman road on Rodopou.

Tell me when I’ve had enough. I love it out here!

150 meters of the Roman road on Rodopou


Cairos, Forgotten God of Favorable Opportunity

There is a moment, that instant when you must choose to do or not to do. Instinct makes you aware of its importance: Act now, and everything hereafter is different. Act not, and things remain the same.

In her History of Ancient Sculpture (1883), Lucy M. Mitchell describes a Greek deity, long out of fashion, represented in sculpture by Lysippos, who worked in fourth-century-BC Peloponnese:

“Cairos was to the people of Lysippos’ day … an actual god, believed to influence men at critical moments, when sudden decision was required, and leading them to the proper improvement of every fleeting opportunity” (511).

Choose.


Success, Freedom, and Castles in the Air

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

I’ve lived with this quote, the first sentence of a paragraph from Thoreau’s Walden, the past several months. It’s written on the inside cover of my pocket notebook. Yesterday, I read the passage again from the secondhand paperback on the shelf. It goes on and ends with another familiar citation. Between, the text is more complicated and less quotable, though it is, in my experience so far, equally true.

“He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

View from a castle in the airView from the parapet of a castle-in-the-air, foundation under construction

Photo from the ruins of a Turkish fort atop a hill above Kounoupitsa, looking over Kissamos and the Gramvousa and Rodopou Peninsulas on either side of Kissamos Bay, Crete


For Whom the Bell Tolls

The church bell rang this Thursday morning. Long, measured strokes echoed through the neighborhood’s narrow, paved streets. Howling dogs answered.

I closed the door behind me as I left on daily errands. My neighbor stood on the terrace before her house, facing the street.

Marianna and I always exchange greetings. She doesn’t speak English, and she knows my Greek is limited. That doesn’t stop her, though, from smiling and talking at length about the cats, her husband, or the olives she crushes into paste. Catching what I can, I smile back, nodding, and say, “Nai,” which means yes.

“Kaliméra, Marianna!”

She turned toward me, blowing her nose into a tissue. Her eyes, wet.

My smile dropped. “Ti kánis?” I asked, How are you?, nearing the frontier of my proficiency in the language.

She gestured toward the house across the way and spoke. Among the words, I heard “fíli.” Friend.

I nodded and said, “Nai,” while Marianna went on talking between sobs.

At a pause, I opened my arms. Her head fell on my shoulder. Blubbers and murmurs. Eyes closed, I took a long breath and held it.

She pulled back and blew her nose again. “Efcharistó,” she said, Thank you.

I walked away, hand on heart, where wounds yet weep.


The Editing Voice

While editing, whether my work or someone else’s, certain refrains come to mind from long ago. They come in the voice of my high school sophomore English teacher.

When I use modifiers like “very,” “almost,” “about,” “some,” “little,” the voice says, “Don’t be wishy-washy. Be definitive.”

About a common or overused phrase, it says, “That’s trite.”

When colloquial words slip into the text: “You might say ‘backside’ but write ‘posterior.’”

If I over explain: “Don’t spoon feed the reader.”

And whenever I struggle with a task, I hear: “The good Lord said he’d give you a wagon; he didn’t say he’d put wheels on it for you!”

Thank you, Mrs. Davis. I paid attention. I remember. I learned what you taught, and I use it every day.


An Unremarkable Day

Nowhere in my research did I find that anything worth noting happened in the life of Benjamin Franklin Potts on this day a hundred years ago. He was in the Sommedieue sector, south of Verdun, in the trenches with the 35th Division. Haterius reports a few engagements during the week, involving other companies of the 137th Infantry Regiment, but Company M seems to have had an uneventful tour.

Between rotations in the trenches, the men read the international newspapers, where they learned that the Central Powers were showing signs of collapse. In previous weeks, Bulgaria had signed an armistice. The Ottoman Empire, without Bulgaria on its flank, was vulnerable to invasion, and ruler, Grand Vizier Talaat Pasha, had resigned with his entire ministry. The German army was retreating before the Allied advance on the Western Front, and talk among the troops was of an end to the war, of peace, of going home.

October 26, 1918, is now significant only because fifty years later, one of Ben’s granddaughters would add to his legacy of great grandsons. And fifty years after that, the great grandson would write that nothing worth noting happened in the life of his great grandfather a hundred years before.

We might guess that Private Potts on that day, like his sixth great grandson today, was thankful to have another day behind him, in which his life was not threatened, and another day before him, in which everything is possible.

 

Benjamin Franklin Potts 1946Benjamin Franklin Potts
at 52 in 1946

Stephen Michael Wendell 2018Stephen Michael Wendell
at 50 in 2018

 


A Very Muddy Place

My great grandfather, like many veterans, didn’t talk much about his wartime experience. His family has only his discharge paper and a few anecdotes.

One hundred years later, I’ve discovered a few documents that bear his name. From draft registration to discharge, I’m following the paper trail of B. F. Potts’s journey to the battlefields of the Great War in France and back home again.


Enterprise, Tennessee: The Town That Died

My great uncle John Wesley Potts, one of Ben Potts’s boys, was the family genealogist. To him the Potts family is thankful for much of the information we have concerning our family history. I have several photocopied pages of the family tree, which includes old photographs and a few stories. These last are in Uncle Wesley’s words, typed by his hand.

I’m fond of one story in particular. It reminds me of my favorite Dr. Seuss book, and like The Lorax, it remains pertinent. Furthermore, as it gives context to the childhood of our present subject, I think it appropriate at this point to transcribe the story of a town named Enterprise as told by John Wesley Potts.

Enterprise, Tennessee:
The Town That Died

Enterprise was a sawmill town on the banks of Lewis Branch. Around 1900, there were sawmills, stave and shingles. The town was aptly named because it was growing. It grew in size between 200 and 300 people.

The timber was plentiful. Virgin oaks, beach and hickory.

Grandpa Albert Jack Potts moved his family there in 1901 from Slayden, Tennessee.

Grandpa was a teamster. He owned matched pairs of horses. Him and the boys [Ben and his brothers] cut and snaked logs out of the wood to the roads. He got a dollar a day plus fifty cents for the horses.

In a few short years the timber was cut and the town slowly fell apart, much like the lumber towns of upper Michigan. He stayed in Houston County and bought a farm. He lived there until his death at 64, in 1929. Albert and Lou Ellen are buried in the McDonald Cemetery along with four of their children.

Pa would marvel at the way they lumber today.

John Wesley PottsJohn Wesley Potts, 1927-2015

 


A Very Muddy Place

My great grandfather, like many veterans, didn’t talk much about his wartime experience. His family has only his discharge paper and a few anecdotes.

One hundred years later, I’ve discovered a few documents that bear his name. From draft registration to discharge, I’m following the paper trail of B. F. Potts’s journey to the battlefields of the Great War in France and back home again.

Previous articles:

The Butte of Vauquois

“Well, Daddy, what did you think about France?”
“It's a very muddy place.”

Benjamin Franklin Potts Registers for the Draft

As the Great War thundered across the fields of northern France, ten million American men, ages 21 to 30, signed their names to register to be drafted into military service.

Military Induction and Entrainment

“I, Benjamin Franklin Potts, do solemnly swear to bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully, against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever…”

Army Training at Camp Gordon

“If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t move, paint it!”

Embarkation, the Tunisian, and the Bridge of Ships

In his first ocean voyage, B. F. Potts crossed the submarine invested waters of the North Atlantic in a convoy of steamers escorted by a warship.

Next date:

September 7—Rendezvous with the 35th Infantry Division


Rackham’s Zelkova

They were colleagues, associates, students—friends of a man. They met at the top of the world, where the mountain peaks meet, where the air is pure and spare. Then they climbed yet higher. Evening light stretched long across a lower plain, threw darkness to the depths of a narrow gorge, and set the sky aglow.

Led by a priest, who held his robe by the hem as he went, the pilgrims walked in single file. They traced a path the man had often walked—there above, where the spirit soars and, so, refills. They stepped up stones carved by ages. They tread on earth gathered by last years’ rain. They rounded an ancient well, its domed ceiling fallen. Its stones now hid beyond reflections on dark water.

At length, they came to a rare forest. Tangled roots joined to knotted trunks. Trunks spread to arching boughs, clothed in crenelated leaves. The priest halted beneath the largest tree. The breathless pilgrims congregated round its wide trunk, sheathed in weathered bark. The tree’s branches embraced them. Its roots, like seats, invited them to rest a while, to refill the spirit.

The pilgrims stood in dappled light. Some spoke of the tree and of the man: of the tree’s age, its qualities, its meaning to the man; of the man’s wisdom, his knowledge, his generosity, and his passion for trees.

The priest lit incense in a censer and began to chant. A cool breeze blew, rustling leaves and grasses, mixing a forest perfume of incense, faint asphodel, and dry-dirt dust. The congregation swayed to the rhythmic chant. Goat bells jangled out of sight. The sound, like water tumbling down a mountain stream, joined the chanting as a choir.

The priest concluded the ceremony, lifting the cloth from a plaque: a dedication of the tree to the memory of the man.

Spirits refilled, the congregation dispersed. Descending in groups of twos and threes, they left the tree, now, by their investment, made unique among all the trees of the rare forest.

 

At the top of the world, where the mountain peaks meet, where the air is pure and spare, you may find a path that climbs yet higher. When evening light stretches long across the lower plain, throwing darkness to the gorge, you may follow the path, where the man once walked—the man who taught us about trees and forests.

At path’s end, you might rest a while in the tree’s embrace. In dappled sunlight, feel the cool breeze, smell the asphodel, hear the goat bells like a tumbling stream. And there above, a filled spirit lingers. 

Oliver RackhamOliver Rackham, 1939-2015

Zelkova abeliceaZelkova abelicea, circa 1300-

Dedicated August 6, 2018, Xyloskalo, Omalos, Crete
Photographs courtesy of Jennifer Moody